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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

This is Google's first working self-driving car, and it's too cute to live


Google's self-driving car prototype

Google's self-driving car prototype

Back in May, Google unveiled the prototype of its own self-driving car — a purpose-built vehicle that was designed to test the technologies needed to make human drivers superflous. Those cars were so radical they didn't even have a steering wheel, a choice that the state of California ordered Google to change before it would allow testing on public roads.
Today, Google revealed a fully working version of its self-driving vehicle, one with not just a wheel and brakes, but functioning headlights, scanners and much of the same bouncy attitude preserved. That's because it's not just the technology which Google plans to push forward with this vehicle, but the idea of having such machines on the road — even if they're too cute to live.

In a Google+ post, the self-driving vehicle team said the car above was "our first complete prototype for fully autonomous driving," with basic details that the previous vehicle lacked. Google expects to keep testing the car on its closed course for the next few months, with driving on public roads set for sometime early next year.

If Google's SDC — I don't know of another model name for this thing — looks like it's not up for the daily freeway commute, that's because its currently limited to 25 mph. At that speed, the car qualifies as a "neighborhood vehicle" under federal laws, and doesn't have to meet the same crash-test standards of full-sized vehicles.

Matthew Inman, the artist known for "The Oatmeal" web comics, said today he had been for a ride in the Google car, and noted the same kind of limitations that plague all self-driving technology; easily confused sensors, trouble with bad weather and the question of how aggressive the car should be with other drivers. He also said the cuteness was a key component: Google was trying to minimize any angry feelings other drivers might get from seeing them on the road.

"By turning self-driving cars into an adorable Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots, Google hopes to spiritually disarm other drivers," Inman said.From an auto design point of view, the Google car looks like a cross between an old Crosley Hotshot and a Dalmatian puppy.

 Cuteness has not been a traditional strong point for vehicles; see the original Plymouth Neon for a car that tried to run with cuteness and failed.

If and when Google decides to build a fully road-going vehicle, it will need one that can protect passengers in high-speed crashes regardless of how smart the software will be. That's just one of the challenges to overcome before this puppy hits the road for real.